If You Can’t Handle Bad Reviews, You’re a Bad Writer

Tuesday, August 16, 2016
By Phil Elmore

I still remember the first time I got a negative review on one of my works of fiction. It was one of my Executioner novels, so the response was reasonably authentic. There was no reason this reader had to dislike me as a person, nor was the subject matter of my book in any way controversial. Non-fiction books frequently suffer negative reviews for ideological reasons, so when a book like that gets panned, you can tell yourself the reviewer simply doesn’t like your opinions. When somebody tells you they hate your fiction, it’s a lot more like they’re saying they hate you. This can be difficult for authors to accept.

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There’s a practical reason to get upset about negative reviews, of course, and that is that damned star rating next to the title. We all look at that star rating, for good or for ill, next to a title on Amazon. We form judgments based on that rating. It doesn’t matter if a deep dive into the comments will reveal a little review-war going on, where many of the reviewers have agendas. I should know; one of my controversial non-fiction books was featured on the website “The Worst Things For Sale.” Shortly before (or after, I can’t remember) that, it was featured on Break.com. Then the cover got made fun of by Chris Hardwick and friends on Comedy Central’s @Midnight. (Obviously, a lot of these joke-writers “borrow” ideas from each other.)

Nobody wants their book to be judged by unfairly negative comments. Everybody wants their work to be taken on its merits and judged accordingly. It would be fair to say some of the reviews that popped up right after the brief public relations explosion for my non-fiction book were from people who had never read it. It’s normal to get upset if you feel your work is being unfairly tagged with a low-ball rating.

But most of the time, when your novel gets a bad review, that’s not what’s happening.

Most of the time, if someone dislikes your fiction, it’s because the reader genuinely didn’t enjoy it. The first time I got a negative review on one of my commercially published action novels, I turned to another writer who wrote for the same mass-market series. He told me something I will always remember: “Online reviews are worth exactly what you pay for them.” But even while you tell yourself that, be careful not to use it as an excuse. Just because some anonymous reader on Amazon read your book and hated it doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t have a valid opinion. Look at the criticisms. Some will be ignorant, sure, and some will be people who the book simply was not written to please. A negative review that starts with, “I don’t like horror fiction” and then trashes your horror fiction book is kind of self-explanatory. But if a reader writes to say your comedy book simply wasn’t funny, or your action novel didn’t grab and hold his attention, you need to look at that. Evaluate it on its own merits. Ask yourself if you can do better.

You may evaluate the criticism honestly and decide that it doesn’t apply. That happens too; some people just don’t get it. For the most part, though, absent any kind of politicking (like, say, the arguments over the Hugo awards, in which people spend more time arguing about the authors’ identity politics than the work in question), if your work is good it will get more good reviews than bad ones. Don’t look at any single review. Your friends will tell you they like your book and they will review it accordingly… because they are your friends. Your enemies, if you have them, will hate your book and want you to die choking on crumpled pieces of the CreateSpace edition of it. Strangers, however, will occasionally read your work, and their honest opinions genuinely point to whether you accomplished your goal in writing the novel.

What you must NEVER do, when encountering a negative review, is obsess over it. There are quite a few immature authors out there, even authors who have enjoyed a reasonable amount of success, who flip the hell out over even a single negative review in a sea of overwhelming positives. They’ll leave nasty comments for the reviewer and may even go so far as to try and find them on social media. In fact, the reasonably successful authors are the worst offenders, because they have a social media audience of fans to whom they can turn to salve their fragile egos. If you, as an author making substantive money off your writing, feel compelled to screen-cap and share with your fans every individual bad review, you have a significant problem.

Your problem is that you can’t handle criticism. When you receive it, you need your fan club to cheer for you, hug you, and tell you that everything’s going to be okay. If you get angry at the reviewer, or go so far as to blog about what a son of a whore you think the reviewer is (by name, or by category, if you’re keen not to get sued), your writing will never truly improve because you can’t face your own shortcomings objectively. You’re too worried about lashing out at somebody who dared to tell you your work wasn’t already perfect.

Your writing must constantly evolve. If every book you write is not better than the last, if you’re not at the very least trending better in the aggregate, it’s probably also true that you have a high opinion of your work. Simultaneously, it probably enrages you when someone criticizes that work. Until you get past that, until you develop the maturity to look at negative reviews for what they are (and use them to improve your efforts), you’ll simply be some hack with an angry blog. The writing world has enough of those already.

You can do better than that. Learn to take and examine criticism. Until you do, you will not fulfill your potential. Until you do, you will not become a better writer.

 

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